Keeping team members safe requires the right equipment. For industrial firefighting teams, a key piece of gear is the SCBA. This equipment protects members while supplying them with air to breathe in hazardous and smoke-filled environments.
As concerns about cancer increase, departments have elevated the SCBA’s role. Jim Burneka of Firefighter Cancer Consultants recommends members of industrial firefighting teams don SCBA at every incident, whether a large-scale industrial fire, hazmat incident, or small car fire in the parking lot. “Wearing masks protects firefighters against toxins in the air,” he says.
Still, Burneka laments, “The biggest problem I see is not wearing SCBAs throughout the duration overhaul.” Departments instead monitor CO and HCN levels and when limits fall within normal ranges, firefighters go off air. “But just because your CO and your HCN are within normal ranges does not mean it’s safe,” Burneka says. “Formaldehyde could be through the roof. We have no way of knowing that. You must wear your SCBA from start to finish.”
Equipment this critical warrants careful consideration before purchase. Here are six factors to consider before investing in new SCBA.
1. ASSESS YOUR NEEDS
Perform a needs assessment before purchasing SCBA. Consider the brand and model already in use, ask team members how they feel it is working, and compare it to existing SCBA standards and other technology developments. Then, consider the following questions:
- Does your SCBA meet current NFPA standards? SCBA must comply with NFPA 1981, NFPA 1982, NFPA 1852, and NFPA 1500, and pass NIOSH CBRN SCBA testing. This testing evaluates equipment for airflow, cold temperature performance, facepiece lens abrasion, and its ability to withstand vibration, fire and heat, corrosion, and particulates.
- Do you need to upgrade existing equipment? Perhaps members want to add features to their SCBA. Maybe they seek improved communications systems, integrated thermal imaging cameras, or better facepieces. Perhaps your aging SCBA no longer offers the protection your members need. All are good reasons to consider an update.
- Does your team need protective barrier hoods? This gear protects a firefighter’s head and neck from carcinogenic particulates. The skin on the neck is very thin and prone to absorbing toxic particulates. A hood that protects the top of the head down to the neck is important even when wearing SCBA.
- What is the budget for upgrades or SCBA purchases? SCBA for a single member can cost $7,000 or more. The price goes higher when departments add options like advanced alert and monitoring systems, thermal imagers, and more.
2. UNDERSTAND SCBA STANDARDS
SCBA used by firefighters must meet a specific list of standards. Familiarizing yourself with these standards ensures products fit the demands of your team.
NFPA 1981 is the standard for SCBA used in emergency services. This standard establishes requirements for respiratory protection and function. For instance, the standard requires that SCBA record and timestamp breathing rates and cylinder pressures. It also mandates that SCBA meet interoperability requirements, regardless of manufacturer.
NFPA 1982 sets performance standards for personal alert safety systems (PASS), which members use to alert others when they need help. Under this mandate, the SCBA must pass tests related to telemetry and function and incorporate a universal PASS tone.
NFPA 1852 specifies minimum requirements for selection, care and maintenance of open-circuit SCBA.
NFPA 1500 gives standards for occupational safety, health and wellness programs to reduce health and safety risks associated with improper SCBA maintenance, contamination or damage.
SCBA designated for use within chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear or CBRN atmospheres also must be NFPA 1981-compliant and NIOSH 42 CFR Part 84-certified.
All protective barrier hoods must meet NFPA 1971 specifications for particulate-barrier protection. NFPA 1971 establishes minimum levels of protection from the thermal, physical, environmental, and blood-borne pathogen hazards firefighters may encounter.
3. SELECT THE TYPE OF SCBA
There are two types of SCBA available: Open Circuit and Closed Circuit.
An open-circuit rescue or firefighter SCBA comprises a full-face mask, regulator, air cylinder, cylinder pressure gauge, remote pressure gauge (sometimes with an integrated PASS device), and a harness with adjustable shoulder straps and waist belt. Firefighters wear open-circuit SCBA on their backs. Open-circuit SCBA is the most common type of SCBA used by fire departments.
A closed-circuit SCBA, also known as a rebreather, filters, supplements, and recirculates exhaled gas. Departments use these systems when firefighters need a longer supply of air. Mine and tunnel rescues and traveling through very narrow passages benefit from closed-circuit SCBA. The tradeoff is the systems cost more and require additional training.
4. PICK A CYLINDER
Years ago, departments only had one cylinder option—an extremely heavy steel cylinder that absorbed heat. Today, manufacturers offer carbon, aluminum and composite cylinders. Departments must gauge their budget against available options and pick the cylinder type that best meets their needs and pocketbook.
Cylinders are available in 30-minute to 75-minute durations and in pressures that range from 2,216 to 5,500 pounds per square inch (psi).
These purchases are long-term investments. A carbon cylinder lasts around 15 years, while an aluminum cylinder will last forever. Cylinders require periodic testing to double check operation. The industry standard is to perform hydrostatic testing every five years.
5.MAKE SURE IT FITS
Correct use of this critical equipment comes down to fit and ease of operation. SCBA that fits well and operates easily in full gear provides maximum protection.
Departments must employ a quantitative machine-based testing procedure to ensure SCBA facepieces meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) guidelines for every member.
OSHA also requires fit testing throughout the year to ensure facepieces fit even when facial appearances change because of weight gain or loss, surgery, scarring or other physical changes. If recurrent tests show the facepiece no longer fits, the department and manufacturer must find a design that fits better. Departments also must provide corrective inserts to members who wear glasses, and these inserts should not interfere with facepiece seal.
Departments should train members to wear SCBA correctly with the bulk of the weight on their hips. Correctly adjusted shoulder straps should allow members to quickly don and doff the SCBA. From there, it’s critical to learn whether members can control the SCBA, communicate with others, and view the scene while wearing gloves, helmets and turnout gear.
6. ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
The MSA Safety Company SCBA Buyers Guide includes a list of recommended questions to ask when looking for SCBA.
- Does the SCBA have features that allow you to see, hear, and react quickly to changing situations?
- Can the manufacturer customize sizes to individual firefighters?
- How many total batteries does the SCBA use? How do the batteries impact long-term costs?
- Does the system integrate with other systems, such as communications devices or portable instruments?
- Does the SCBA provide individuals, teams, and incident commanders with critical information to make effective life-saving decisions?
- Can departments program the SCBA to meet their standard operating procedures?
- Is the facepiece reducing or adding to overall SCBA cost and complexity?
- What does the warranty cover? How does that affect ongoing maintenance costs?
- What is involved in updating the SCBA to meet changing standards?
- How easily can departments add integrated accessories or features as they become available?
Though this list is far from comprehensive, it is a good start. Asking the right questions and staying up to date with SCBA improvements ensures members get maximum performance from their breathing apparatus.
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